“He thinks like a philosopher but behaves like a king.” – Rousseau, referring to Frederick the Great
Frederick the Great played music with Bach, corresponded with Voltaire, and took a strong but second rate power—Prussia—and gave it a seat at the top table. During the Seven Years War, he would manage to hold off an alliance of all three great powers of continental Europe (France, Russia, and Austria), defeating and being defeated in turn but maintaining his hold on the rich farmlands of Silesia that provided the wealth Prussia needed.
His achievements are perhaps not as outwardly impressive as Napoleon. But Frederick the Great took a group of territories and managed to unite and hold them against all comers, creating the foundation of the modern German state. During and after his reign, he was both hero-worshipped and denigrated. Perhaps most shockingly to his contemporaries, he was devoutly secular, espousing complete freedom of religion and in his private notes repeatedly mocking religion. He was also likely homosexual, though concrete evidence does not exist either way.
Perhaps his most defining trait, however, was decisiveness, and that trait lay at the heart of his many military successes as well as some of his failures. He dismissed (with Voltaire) German as fit only for peasants and horses, called Rousseau a lunatic, and criticized Shakespeare. He wrote a paper arguing kings should avoid war when possible, and invaded a neighbouring state three months later. He was a complicated monarch, and it takes a deft hand to write his biography.
Blanning’s greatest strength is perhaps is ability to relate the events and ideals of Frederick’s life to more universal ones, not shying from telling a story not just of Frederick, but of fathers and sons, royalty, and officialdom more generally. At those points, the book is excellent, reaching beyond military biography to the personal in his consideration of Frederick’s relationship with his father, for example.
Unfortunately the book can also at times be repetitious and somewhat disorganized. Reaching the end of Frederick’s empire-building by the middle of the book, it loses some of its flow: what interests historians is not always what interests readers, and unfortunately at points the book focuses too much on the former audience and not enough on the latter. Still, a worthy attempt to address what remains a complicated subject.
Disclosure: I read Frederick the Great as an advance reader copy. You can see more reviews here: Frederick the Great. It is released March 29th.